Serendipitous Gleanings

Friday, June 09, 2023

A Friday Hodgepodge

1. I like railroads and was a model railroader as a teen. Moving around a lot and other priorities have kept me from resuming the hobby for a long time. But I do enjoy a good article on railroads from time to time, and a post from Alpha Rail about railroad ballast fits the bill, explaining why tracks "have crushed stones alongside them."

The sharp edges of the stones make it very difficult for them to move -- they essentially lock into place as the sharp edges cut into each other, helping to create an extremely stable base for the railway sleepers and track to be laid.
While I had a general guess about the purpose of ballast, it had never occurred to me that there might be good reason to have never seen smooth stones used for the purpose.

2. From a thread grousing about corporate euphemism comes the following internal Google humor: "[A]ny announcement starting with 'An update on X' == we are killing X." And yes, it extends to passing word that a colleague has resigned.

3. An article titled "Own-Goal Football" describes a curiousity of soccer history.

A collision of odd tournament rules, for tie-breaking in individual games and for deciding round-robin standings, resulted in an interesting type of mayhem at the end of a match:
For the final five minutes of regular time, fans were treated to a truly bizarre sight. Grenada was trying to score a goal in both directions: if they won or lost by one point, they would have the greater victory. And to stop them, Barbados was defending both goals at the same time -- blocking both attempts at their goal, but also attempts by Grenada to score an own goal.
The piece includes very short clip from the game.

4. If you're American and have traveled abroad for any length of time (or vice versa), you may have wondered why Americans refrigerate eggs and everyone else keep theirs at room temperature.

If so, the Los Angeles Times has you covered:
Image by Raiyan Zakaria, via Unsplash, license.
American egg producers focus on preventing [salmonella] contamination from the outside, so they are required by the USDA to thoroughly wash the eggs before they go to market. They're rinsed in hot water, dried and sprayed with a chlorine mist almost as soon as they're laid.

Europeans take a different approach. In the United Kingdom, for example, producers instead vaccinate laying hens to prevent the transmission of salmonella. They then rely on a thin, naturally occurring coating called the cuticle, to prevent any contamination from the outside of the shell penetrating to the egg.
This isn't just a neat factoid, either, but a case of it being good to "do as the Romans do."

The piece goes on to explain why it's a bad idea to refrigerate eggs bought at room temperature or vice versa.

-- CAV

Two Lawless Parties

Thursday, June 08, 2023

Two law professors warn that insofar as Donald Trump found ways to ignore or work around the law (they call it "law avoision"), Ron DeSantis may be better at doing it.

That is to say, DeSantis may combine a similar contempt for the law with being more methodical than Trump and better at getting away with it.

This contention parallels my own concern that, while DeSantis often seems like he could be better as a President than Trump (while managing to appeal to his base), he could be worse than Trump, if it turns out he is just a more organized and effective authoritarian.

Their concerns about his abuses of power, below, are just a part of their case:

Image by Elena Mozhvilo, via Unsplash, license.
Even more worrisome is how DeSantis uses the law to attack his enemies. We are concerned by his retaliation against Disney for exercising its First Amendment rights -- and even more alarmed by his undermining law enforcement by suspending prosecutors he doesn't like. They're the very prosecutors who might investigate him or his administration for breaking the law. We should all remember that firing prosecutors was similarly Trump's first line of defense against criminal investigations of himself and his campaign -- even though the use of presidential power to remove a prosecutor and corruptly obstruct investigations is itself criminal. [bold added]
Much of the rest concerns flouting campaign finance laws, which are a mixed bag. That said, it is the job of a chief executive to enforce the law until it can be changed (and then not merely, as they argue DeSantis has done, for mere political expediency).

Just because someone points to the Defund the Police mob and states the obvious about them does not mean they aren't essentially the same thing or worse in different packaging.

-- CAV

'Woke' vs. Taking the Initiative

Wednesday, June 07, 2023

There is a part-interesting, part-amusing, and entirely predictable battle going on over the meaning of the term woke, as Tauseef Mustafa discusses at Digital Journal before concluding that the politicians don't know what it means:

According to The Economist, as the term woke and the #Staywoke hashtag began to spread online, the term "began to signify a progressive outlook on a host of issues as well as on race."

But, more recently, among American conservatives, woke has come to be used primarily as an insult. The Republican Party have been increasingly using the term to criticize members of the Democratic Party, while more centrist Democrats use it against more left-leaning members of their own party. [links omitted]
Image by Danny Burke, via Unsplash, license.
This is in line with what I have been able to glean on the subject, although I bet one could also find examples of populist/fascist conservative types using using the term to insult free market advocates.

I have noticed a couple of further things about the conservative adoption of this leftist shibboleth.

First, since the term was never precisely defined in the first place, and its use as a shorthand for a certain ideological orientation is inherently imprecise and can easily backfire, as demonstrated by the humiliation of a conservative commentator being asked for a definition and coming up empty.

She had just written a book about how she thinks "woke ideology is upending American childhood." Uh-oh.

Worse than this, you have the likes of Ron DeSantis saying phrases like "woke capitalism." If something is truly capitalistic, it isn't leftist. And if it isn't, why not call it what it is, like mixed-economy?

Second, the term is right up there with one of my old favorites, overreach, as symptomatic of the dependence of today's right on the left: First, absent a positive agenda, the right defines itself only by contrast to and in supposed opposition to the left. Second, because the right holds the same moral premises as the left, it can't really challenge the left in any substantive way. (e.g., "Regulatory overreach" does not challenge the propriety of the government running things, but inherently concedes that regulation is good only complaining of it being in excess whatever excessively good might mean.

The phrase "woke capitalism" is interesting in this light. Conservatives are ambivalent about capitalism, but like to pretend to be mostly in favor of it -- unless, as now it seems, it promotes leftist political goals. They have also never liked "unbridled" capitalism. We have been warned.

And so, with woke, the right focuses on the left rather than defining and forging ahead with its own positive agenda -- which is what the pro-freedom political revolution we need will require.

Instead, we have the right agreeing with the left that the government needs to be in charge of far more than it should be, and differing only in details for what end, which won't be the protection of freedom if they continue on their present course.

-- CAV

Of Bans, Quarantines, and Mandates

Monday, June 05, 2023

Today, a story about a "ban" on smart phones for children in Ireland caught my eye.

Interestingly enough, like so many other words that appear in headlines, an often-misused word is sprinkled throughout:

Image by Tim Gouw, via Unsplash, license.
Parents' associations across the district's eight primary schools, where kids range from about 4 to 12 years old, can opt into the ban, The Guardian reported. It is meant to be enforced not only at school, but also at home. Area schools already banned or restricted cell phone usage, but the effects of social media remained present, according to the report.

"If everyone does it across the board you don't feel like you're the odd one out. It makes it so much easier to say no," Laura Bourne, whose child is in primary school, told The Guardian. "The longer we can preserve their innocence the better."

Not all parents have chosen to partake, but Rachel Harper, a primary school principal who led the initiative, told the publication that enough parents have opted in to make a meaningful difference. [bold added]
Contrast this with the more common (and perhaps modern) use of the term later in the same story:
Meanwhile, a town in India has banned smartphone usage for all under the age of 18, according to the Times of India. Those who are found using a smartphone will face a small financial penalty. Another village in India is imposing an evening "digital detox," the Times noted, with all smartphone users — children and adults alike — barred from engaging with the devices between 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. daily. [bold added]
The story from Ireland sounds almost quaint, with the idea of individual parents making decisions for themselves, free from government threats or extortion perhaps enough to make one reread the piece.

Most such stories would employ the word ban -- with approval -- to mean that a government is meddling in the lives of individuals, as it is plainly doing in India.

This reminds me of the widespread misuse of quarantine during the pandemic to mean universal, indefinite home detention, rather than its older (and more appropriate sense) of forcibly isolating contagious individuals who negligently or deliberately put others at risk of infection; and mandate, which is usually now taken to mean that the government is forcibly making people do things, rather than preventing them from doing so.

It is worth noting that a major presidential candidate is happy to capitalize on the confusion by selectively banning mandates by businesses that they should absolutely be free to impose on their employees and customers by extension of their rights to property and free association.

-- CAV

What the Kids Are Up To

Friday, June 02, 2023

A Friday Hodgepodge

Light/Irregular Posting Notice: Due to unusually heavy personal obligations, posting here may be sparse and at odd times from now until about June 20.

With that out of the way, I haven't posted about my kids in a while, so here goes...


1. Recovering from a nasty virus, my son perked up and started binge-watching Toy Story movies yesterday.

After observing Forky, the spork-turned-toy by a kindergartner, he presented me with his theory of what it takes to be "alive" (read: sentient) in the Toy Story universe: eyes and a mouth.

Image by the author's daughter. Reproduction with attribution permitted.
2. Mrs. Van Horn and I love our daughter's art. Reproduced here is my daughter's stippled portrait of a monkey.

3. My son started off as a picky eater, but likes tandoori chicken and often asks me to make red beans and rice or jambalaya so he can have it in his school lunch.

This might seem strange, but his maternal grandmother is picky and his mother is a foodie -- but occasionally can't eat something due to an off taste undetectable to me. (I basically quit using thyme, because it frequently tastes moldy to her.)

My theory is that the three are supertasters, and my son will end up having sophisticated tastes in food, while also sometimes being hard to please, like his mother.

Mrs. Van Horn is very particular about shellfish, and usually dislikes them if they've been frozen. My son doesn't have this particular objection, so when Mom goes out of town, the kids and I will often have crawfish etouffee for dinner on one of the nights.

Amusingly, putting this down reminded me of a quip my barber made about his pickiness way back in my St. Louis days to the effect that he "must have been an imperial food taster in a past life."

4. Lots of people bemoan the ubiquity of electronic devices like smart phones and tablets, but they're not all bad, any more than televisions and phones were when I was a kid.

My son uses his iPad to learn about things all the time, and my daughter, who is an anime fan, is using an app on her phone to learn Japanese.

The latter followed from a conversation about electives in school. She's in middle school now and was picking electives for next year one evening. We ended up telling her that in high school, you can even have learning a new language as an elective.

She immediately asked if she could learn Japanese.

We told her that that is very rare in America, and that she might need a private tutor for that, or maybe she could use an app some time if she's still interested in a few years.

I shouldn't have been surprised at her starting Duolingo sessions that evening: This is, after all, the girl who uses timers for everything and whom I never have to remind to do her homework.

-- CAV

2019 Wants Its Pandemic Panic Back

Thursday, June 01, 2023

If you thought the media were done trying to make you panic about covid -- or just want a trip down memory lane -- you can mosey on over to MSN. They're carrying a Boston Globe piece that sounds like it could have been written in late 2019 or early 2020, when we knew little about covid, and were still facing a virgin soil pandemic.

Yes, the author mentions Paxlovid and grudgingly admits that we're no longer using refrigerator trucks as makeshift morgues, but get a load of this:

Image by Edvard Munch, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
But jokes aside, it's been quietly harrowing. Even a "mild" case of COVID is still COVID, a virus that has killed more than 7 million people worldwide, at least 1.1 million of them in this nation alone. (And the real numbers are probably higher.) Death has never been the only consequence of this virus. Long-haulers still struggle with debilitating post-virus symptoms that can range from fatigue and chronic cough to brain fog and gastrointestinal issues.

"It's a cause of great concern," Dr. Francis S. Collins, former director of the National Institutes of Health, told The Washington Post in 2021. "Even if it's only 10 percent of people who've been infected who end up with long COVID ... [t]hat's a big public health issue."


COVID still kills hundreds each week. A new booster for those 65 and older was quietly rolled out in April, but only 17 percent of those eligible have gotten it. News broadcasts no longer share the latest COVID data, once a daily staple. It's as if there was an agreement that COVID would disappear if only we stopped talking and thinking about it. That means this nation has largely resigned itself to the terrible fact that thousands will die from the virus this year and perhaps for years to come.
But for some missing, readily-available context, we'd think officials were out of their gourds for declaring the pandemic over...

Yes, death remains a possible outcome of this virus, but vaccination reduces that risk by something north of 75%, even without the bivalent booster -- and prior infection is as protective in that regard as vaccination.

And as far as long covid goes -- a sometimes serious condition that is just being understood -- I doubt the risk of it being severe is anywhere near the 10% chance of a covid case leading to that collection of post-acute difficulties:
The CDC considers long COVID to be an umbrella term for "health consequences" that are present at least 4 weeks after an acute infection. This condition can be considered "a lack of return to the usual state of health following COVID," according to the CDC.

Common symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath, exercise intolerance, "brain fog," chest pain, cough, and loss of taste/smell. Note that it's not a requirement that that symptoms be severe enough that they interfere with activities of daily living, just that they are present.

There is no diagnostic test or criteria that confirms this diagnosis. Therefore, the symptoms and definitions above are vague and make it difficult to gauge prevalence of the disease. Hence, the varying estimates that range from 5% to 30%, depending on the study. [bold added]
So, if I get covid and still cough a month later -- like I do every time I catch a cold -- I'd count as having "long covid" whether or not I had any significant lingering debility.

Oh, and vaccination lowers the risk of long covid -- which is already lower (or nonexistent) for the now-dominant omicron-based strains of the virus.

Nevertheless, the piece basically accuses anyone who isn't holed up for the apocalypse or masking in public of evasion:
COVID still kills hundreds each week. A new booster for those 65 and older was quietly rolled out in April, but only 17 percent of those eligible have gotten it. News broadcasts no longer share the latest COVID data, once a daily staple. It's as if there was an agreement that COVID would disappear if only we stopped talking and thinking about it. That means this nation has largely resigned itself to the terrible fact that thousands will die from the virus this year and perhaps for years to come. [links omitted]
Guess what else kills hundreds each week in the US? The flu.

Call me foolhardy, but my plan for covid is the same as for the flu: I'll get a jab in the fall and avoid being around people who I know have it, unless they're in my immediate family and need my care.

It is not evasion to take into account changing conditions when assessing what to do about a virus at either the governmental level or the personal level. The virus is endemic now and we have blunted its effects through vaccination and treatments we didn't have in 2019; It should be treated like the flu or any other serious respiratory disease. Since the government is no longer facing an emergency, this means that at-risk individuals have to be more vigilant than others regarding covid. Period.

(Many things the government did do were wrong. Please see this document for a blueprint for what I think would be a proper response.)

As for me? I haven't had covid yet, to my knowledge. The thought that I could die or be a long-hauler isn't pleasant at all, but I value living a normal life enough that treating this virus like the flu is a reasonable balancing of risk and reward to me.

Nothing we do -- even hiding from an illness -- is without risks or downsides, and it is ridiculous to chide others for not making the same assessments we do, esepcially when their individual situations are not the same.

-- CAV

A Second-Hander on His Second-Hand Car

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

... A Reflection on a Second Reading

I recall being mildly puzzled and amused at this editorial around the time Elon Musk acquired Twitter: The piece seemed a better parody on virtue-signaling than I could write if I tried.

I recall finding the squirming at the end especially amusing:

I don't know whether to sell [the Tesla I bought used] , but I do know that I'm just not as comfortable driving it anymore.

It's a beautifully designed car with no carbon emission, and initially, I was proud of owning it and being seen driving a vehicle that displayed my concern for the environment. But I'm a liberal, and if Musk's politics don't change radically for the better, driving a Tesla will become, at least for me, as hypocritical and untenable as driving a gas guzzler was.

If I shared the author's professed belief that every little reduction in exhaust emissions mattered -- and knew that my local electricity mix didn't simply mean I was driving a coal-powered car -- I'd just keep driving the Tesla because I would know why I was doing it.

Also, I'd ignore any snide remarks, and use any sincere questions as an opportunity to differentiate myself from Musk and help others understand why, Musk's boorishness to the contrary notwithstanding, his cars were still a help.

But this commentator seems really, as Ayn Rand put it, to have "chose[n] the authority of others" over the verdict of his own mind.

I ran into the bookmark for this piece this morning, long after I'd forgotten about it, and I found it a lot less funny this time around.

To see what I mean, first, consider the below:
Image by Katie Moum, via Unsplash, license.
They have no concern for facts, ideas, work. They're concerned only with people. They don't ask: "Is this true?" They ask: "Is this what others think is true?" Not to judge, but to repeat. Not to do, but to give the impression of doing. Not creation, but show. Not ability, but friendship. Not merit, but pull. What would happen to the world without those who do, think, work, produce? Those are the egoists. You don't think through another's brain and you don't work through another's hands. When you suspend your faculty of independent judgment, you suspend consciousness. To stop consciousness is to stop life. Second-handers have no sense of reality. Their reality is not within them, but somewhere in that space which divides one human body from another. Not an entity, but a relation -- anchored to nothing. That's the emptiness I couldn't understand in people. That's what stopped me whenever I faced a committee. Men without an ego. Opinion without a rational process. Motion without brakes or motor. Power without responsibility. The second-hander acts, but the source of his actions is scattered in every other living person. It's everywhere and nowhere and you can't reason with him. He's not open to reason. [bold added]
Now, read the whole thing.

Maybe, when the news was fresh and I wanted a break from the wailing and gnashing of teeth, I needed a laugh a little too much. Maybe I really read it for the first time today.

In any event, it is striking and disturbing just how thoroughly the author leans on other people for guidance and ... praise, I guess. There are many people like him, and not just on the left.

Anyone who spends all his time "owning the libs" is doing the same thing. This doesn't get such a person closer to the truth, and it's just as much of a game of virtue-signaling.

Much of our culture, thanks to its religious element, left and right, is infected with virtue signaling -- with professing some "truth" or other in order to fit in. It is a rare person indeed who has neither succumbed, nor has had to fight against it, nor to recover from it to some degree.

Extreme cases are unreachable, and there are more and more of them by the day. And this is at a time we urgently need a more rational political debate. Taking potshots both tempts anyone sympathetic to the target to dig their heels in, and it encourages more second-handedness on the part of those nominal allies who are in fact brothers in spirit to the target.

The price of "owning" a political opponent is to cede the only ground worth standing on in an argument: objective reality.

-- CAV